19 February 2019
Saint Lua’s Oratory, Killaloe:
a small church saved from
the rising Shannon waters
Saint Molua’s Church, or Saint Lua’s Oratory, is an interesting surviving part of a monastic foundation that dates back to the seventh century and that now stands in the grounds of Saint Flannan’s Roman Catholic parish church in Killaloe, Co Clare.
This small stone oratory is associated with Saint Molua, or Saint Lua, who gives his name to Killaloe. The name Killaloe (Cill Lua), originates from ‘the Church of Lua.’ Saint Lua was a seventh or eighth century monk who founded a monastery on a nearby island in the River Shannon, later known as Inis Lua (Lua’s Island).
The name ‘Molua’ derives from the popularity of the saint as people came to refer to him as Mo Lua or ‘my Lua.’ Saint Lua was from a noble family in the Limerick area, a grandson of Eacha Baildearg, King of Munster. He trained for the priesthood in Bangor, Co Down, where Saint Columba had also studied, and established a small monastery on Friar’s Island, about 1 km downriver from Killaloe.
The saint’s small church or oratory, which originally stood on Inis Lua or Friar’s Island, south of Killaloe, is an early example of a nave-and-chancel church, and was built in two phases.
The single-storey nave, where a small congregation assembled, was probably built in the tenth or eleventh century and is likely to have had a roof of timber or thatch. The chancel was added to the east end of the nave at some stage in the 12th century, around the same time that Saint Flannan’s Oratory was being built beside Saint Flannan’s Cathedral in Killaloe. Some sources suggest Muirchertach Ua Briain commissioned some of the masons working on Saint Flannan’s Oratory to build this new chancel.
The pitched stone roof of the chancel is a rare example of stone roof building from this time. The narrow dimensions of the building and the use of mortar allowed the construction of this straight-sided roof without an internal propping arch. This stone roof has survived for almost 1,000 years.
Lintelled doorways give access through the west end of the nave and the south wall of the chancel. There is a modest round arch linking the chancel and the nave. Two aumbry niches – recesses in which the sacred vessels and the elements of the Eucharist were stored) – are located inside at the east end of the north and south chancel walls.
When the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme was being built at Ardnacrusha in 1925-1929, it was necessary to raise in the river’s water level and to submerge Friar’s Island. The level of Lough Derg was raised by 18 inches, and it was decided at the time to relocate the oratory to its present location beside Saint Flannan’s Church in Killaloe.
Before the waters were raised, Saint Molua’s Oratory was dismantled stone-by-stone and transported to Killaloe on a specially-built barge. A rope was stretched between the shore of the river and the island and the workers ‘handed’ the barge between the shores.
Two small temporary jetties were built on the shore and an inclined trackway with truck and winch were used to transport the masonry across land. The oratory was rebuilt in the grounds of Saint Flannan’s Church in July 1930.
The oratory has been beautifully rebuilt with careful attention to detail, and now offers an insight into the way life lived by priests and monks in the Middle Ages.